Japan: the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel
British-born of a Spanish father and a French mother, Nicolas Obregon grew up between London and Madrid. He is a graduate of the acclaimed Birkbeck Creative Writing Masters course and a former bookseller. As a travel writer, Nicolas has had extensive experience of Japan, but the beginning of his fascination with the country came from watching Japanese cartoons as a young boy. The inspiration for his novel Blue Light Yokohama is easy to mark: during his first trip to Japan, Nicolas came across an article about a real-life crime which was to haunt him. Sixteen years after this atrocity, the case remains unsolved. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Nicolas explains why Japan is the perfect backdrop to a crime novel.
On the face of it, Japan isn’t an obvious choice for the backdrop to a crime novel, renowned as it is for its public safety. And while national stereotypes should be taken with an armful of salt, the numbers bear this one out: reported crime in 2015 hit a postwar low, with just one gun-related homicide. In Japan, you’re more likely to die of a mistimed selfie than you are of copping a stray bullet. So how does any of this make it a good setting for a crime novel? I’ll attempt to answer by looking at murder weapon, motive and crime scene.
The lack of gun crime in Japan is hardly surprising when you consider the requirements for a license: a full-day class, written exams, a shooting test (with a minimum pass grade of 95%). Next up, there are substance abuse and mental health tests. The police will then speak to your relatives and colleagues. Oh, and this only for shotguns or air rifles — handguns are banned completely.
Now as everyone knows, the gun is a faithful friend to the crime writer. It’s a time-honoured literary device, whether in the form of an inciting incident, an unforeseen plot twist or climactic ending. In a split second, the gun takes away lives, or changes them forever. But if your novel is set in Japan? Not so much. However, I’d argue that, far from being a drawback for the crime writer, this is actually fertile ground. A lack of guns means that murder in Japan is, by and large, committed with knives, blunt weapons or bare hands. A crime writer can play around with unconventional demises (Japan may not have bullets, but it has bullet trains — being thrown off at 200mph would do the trick). Whichever way the crime writer slices it, in Japan, her murderer is going to get have to get dirty hands and see the eyes of the victim up close.
How a killer kills has never really been what’s drawn me to the page, it’s the why that intrigues. For me, blood and violence shouldn’t be the focus, it should be a simple byproduct of motive. So let’s look at the Japanese context.
The country is 73% mountainous, meaning most people are crammed into the leftover space — sprawling cities. Tokyo’s population alone is upwards of 37.8 million (two-thirds of England’s total). The observation of custom and societal role is highly important and many are under intense pressure to meet expectations. And, like in any society, there are those that fit in and those that don’t. The child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who drank the blood of his victims and ate the ashes of his grandfather, blamed his actions on his alter ego, Rat Man. But we know he was ostracised in his childhood, telling police: 'All I really wanted was to be listened to.' The perpetrator of the Akihabara Massacre, Tomohiro Katō, drove a truck into a crowd and stabbed strangers to death, saying afterwards: 'Anybody with hope couldn’t possibly understand how I feel… I don’t have a single friend.'
Of course, this sort of thing is an aberration. But, the fact remains. People are packed in. People are isolated. People are under pressure. People snap. Or, we can look at it from another angle. Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands, yet only 430 of them are inhabited. It’s a country replete with empty spaces, remote mountain forests, abandoned towns — places to brood, places to hide, places to bury a body.
As a crime writer, I see setting as its own character. The landscape dictates the mood of a story just as much as its events or the characters that drive it. If a body is found by a scarecrow in a frozen field, that will provoke one set of feelings in the reader. If it’s found on a blood-spattered dance-floor, those feelings will differ completely. Crime scene tells the reader not just what happened but gives clues to why. It provides information and misinformation all at once.
So what about Japan’s crime scenes? I think the word ‘Japan’ tends to conjure stock images of Tokyo: neoteric corporate skyscrapers, the neon-candy cavalcade of Shibuya. And all of that is there. But Tokyo is a million neighbourhoods. Ancient temples hide away behind tower blocks. A thousand tree-lined canals seem to be nameless. Behind thimble-sized bars in Shinjuku, shifty men in suits whisper in alleyways. The smell of fresh fish wafts through the cyberpunk open-air market of Ameya-Yokochō. Herons nest on the concrete banks of the Kanda River. In the breathlessly humid rainy season, snakes slither out of gutters. And Japan is thousands of islands. Far away from Tokyo, the train from Toyama heads south along the shockingly blue Jinzu River, carriages almost gliding through deep-green forested hills. In Takayama, a ruined bandit castle sits on top of a mountain and affords a solitary panorama of the never-ending Gifu landscape. In Osaka’s spring, five-thousand cherry trees bloom along the Okawa River, daydream beautiful.
What I’m trying to say is, for the crime writer, there’s no end to the unique scenery, whether she chooses the stark or sublime. Japan is spilling over with moody landscapes, ripe for painting jealousy, greed, lust, revenge.
For many, a visit to Japan will be the single most courteous experience of their lives. An uncommon amalgam of cyberpunk futurism and ancient custom, it’s a ridiculously beautiful country full of fascinating history. People fall over themselves to help you and, as we’ve covered, crime is something of an aberration.
On the other hand, its conviction rate is over 99% and those sentenced to death will hang by the neck (with one hour’s warning). The Japanese police have more sweeping powers than most law-enforcement agencies in the world. Every country is a pile of contrasts and contradictions. But Japan’s are just so wildly vivid. Ultimately, it’s a country that refuses definition. But endlessly invites depiction.